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A multidisciplinary tour of cosmic history charts the “grand sequence” of existence

Quarks to Culture: How We Came to Be

Tyler Volk
Columbia University Press
280 pp.
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The value of Tyler Volk’s Quarks to Culture is evident when the book is placed against popular histories of the universe, dozens of which have provided evidence for an immense cosmic past. But such histories are often anecdotal, like early British histories of the kings of England. Unlike these works, Volk artfully presents the case for structural continuity and systematic creativity across 13.8 billion years of cosmic history.

He begins with a simple observation: “As you go down into the body, you go back in time: from the body inward to cells, to molecules, and then to atoms. Passing from life to physics, each first type in this series of nested things came into existence earlier.” The primary achievement of his book is the clear articulation of the temporal sequence in which the smallest particles combine to form atoms, which form molecules, then cells, and eventually organisms. He further extends his analysis to dynamically related tiers that ascend to animal herds and hives, tribal associations, and eventually large societies. Volk goes beyond current concepts of emergence, complexity, self-organization, and autopoiesis with a sustained and impressive presentation of “combogenesis,” his own term for the innovative creativity of the physical, biological, and cultural realms. The fact that he accomplishes this grand sweep within just 250 pages makes the book a superb contribution deserving of wide readership.

Volk’s study traces the sequence of combogenesis in 12 chapters. A series of parallel diagrams at the head of each chapter clarifies the combinatory steps from each level to the next. Acknowledging familiar metapatterns of layers, hierarchies, thresholds, and domains, he emphasizes the structural relation of these tiers as “nested.” The term is most obviously applicable to quarks, nucleons, and atoms but takes on metaphoric richness in the higher biological and cultural realms. Principles that may seem specific to agrovillages or geopolitical states are nested within the governing limitations of earlier structures while manifesting the creative integration evident at higher levels.

A recent emphasis on “big history,” which ranges over similar territory, is recast as “grand sequence” in Quarks to Culture—a term that bypasses the march of events in order to highlight the mystery of temporal change as the fundamental reality. Volk skips the usual rehearsal of geological eras, land colonization, continental drift, and dinosaur extinction, focusing instead on the big picture. In doing so, he manages to frame a complex welter of multidisciplinary information as a “narrative of the universe” that is creative and compelling.


A complex, colonial organism forms when individual red-spotted siphonophores come together.

Despite the book’s emphasis on storytelling, Volk must occasionally resort to numbers to impress upon the reader the complexity of contemporary existence. A suite of fundamental particles is organized into 92 elements, he writes, which are combined in hundreds of molecules before the rise of life. Millions more come into being after the rise of life, and perhaps 100 billion can be found in what Volk calls the “protein sequence space.” His rigorous philosophical emphasis assumes that his readers are already aware of the vastness of time and space, nuclear fusion in stars, the evolution of the solar system, and theories of life’s origin.

Communication, Volk shows, also has a deep history: from animal calls to speech among tribal associations and agrovillages to writing in geopolitical states. In Chapter 16, he introduces the concept of “alphakits”: 26 letters and 40 phonemes that have given rise to thousands of words and millions of linguistic artifacts and provided a foundation for cultural construction, preservation, and transfer. But the term applies to lower levels, too, he argues: A suite of quarks, elements, amino acids, and proteins constitutes early alphakits for evolution.

In a recent Science Editorial, Gordon McBean and Alberto Martinelli noted, “Despite decades of efforts toward better integration, much of society still presumes a stark divide between the disciplines, and most scientists continue to be trained, evaluated, and rewarded in disciplinary silos” (1). The “grand sequence” advocated in Quarks to Culture is, as they and others have argued, largely unrecognized. Volk, however, marshals evidence from a dozen disciplines filtered through a rigorous intellect with grace and without polemics.

With impressive learning, rigorous analysis, and artful writing, Quarks to Culture presents a unifying philosophy reminiscent of Alfred North Whitehead’s exploration of process.


  1. G. McBean, A. Martinelli, Science 358, 975 (2017)

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of English, University of Houston, Houston, TX 77204, USA.